Long time favourites Merchants not only have a new menu, but an entirely new chef! Luke Holland has taken the helm and the overhauled menus look promising with Michelin star ambition; fine dining indeed!
We tried the 5-course tasting menu, which goes for £45 per person and each dish is inspired by Chef Luke Holland’s lifelong memories. It’s both exciting and endearing to read so we were really looking forward to the experience. A gastronomic glimpse into the life of a chef that doesn’t look like it should be missed. Note, no veggie or vegan options on this particular tasting menu.
But first, cocktails. As always. Saint bar is attached to the restaurant and the cocktails are high quality, freshly made and fantastically inventive – even the dehydrated fruit garnishes are prepared fresh daily in the kitchen.
I went for a vodka-based summer creation called Apple of Eden and Stu had a Nottinghammm favourite: G&T, pimped. It was a delicious combination of aromatic gin, spicy black pepper, fresh cucumber and sweet orange. The subtle, green flavours of the Apple of Eden allowed the sharp, refreshing taste of granny smith’s to shine through, with a cheeky kick from the grassy Zubrowka vodka and floral notes of elderflower. A great way to start the meal, we’ll definitely be back for their unique flavours as well as their twists on traditional classics, like a lychee martini or smoked old fashioned. They even have a collection of cocktails inspired by perfumes. Perfumes!!!
On to the food, we had two courses before the menu even began!
The amuse bouche of steamed bun with goats cheese was light, fluffy and tangy and the shot of watermelon with creme fraiche foam, balsamic and basil was an exciting balance of sweet and savoury, rounded out by the acidic cream – lovely.
Homemade, warm bread followed, the nutty pumpkin loaf was our favourite and an eyebrow-raising addition of fruit bread made a sometimes dull bread basket an actual experience to enjoy.
First course: mackerel, green tomato, cream cheese, radish, cucumber and dill oil.
Wow, what a lovely light way to start a tasting menu. The mackerel was beautifully soft, oily and salty, just how it should be. The marriage of fresh flavours from the interesting green tomatoes, cumcumer and radish worked really well and even the creaminess of the cheese managed add to the light burst of freshness that was this starter. A great start and a lovely story, inspired by fishing trips with Luke’s Grandad at the age of 7. You really get the feeling of that experience shine true through the dish.
Second course: aged beef, mustard aoli, shallot, apple, bbq sauce
As good a start as we got with the mackerel dish, this ‘bbq with the boys’ inspired dish was astonishing. It was just so, so interesting; pure bbq meat flavour with RAW meat?! HOW?! The soft beef tartare, sweet, tangy apple and creamy mayo was sprinkled with this extraordinary ash that added a punch of flavour that both confused you and made you eager for every bite. It’s smoky summer evenings in the garden on a plate, it really added that authentic barbecued taste to a raw dish without overpowering any individual elements and our tastebuds didn’t quite know how to handle it. Each ingredient worked well together, and it’s like nothing we’ve tried before. Absolute winner.
Third course: spring lamb, asparagus, lamb sauce, potatoes, crispy sweetbread, broad beans and morels
One thing to note is that these savoury dishes played out like a crescendo, each dish got better and better and this main course was the pinnacle. I think this is one of the best lamb dishes we’ve ever tasted. Not as groundbreaking in experimental flavour as the previous course but tried and tested spring flavours were married together wonderfully and cooked to perfection. The lamb loin was butter-soft and pink, delicious with the fresh, nutty taste of broad beans and the richness of a fantastic sauce. The asparagus was full of flavour with the right amount of crunch and the crispy sweetbread was a surprising addition – we expected it taste more like offal, but it almost tasted like a rich chicken nugget! Odd but tasty! The butter and chive potatoes were served on the side and, although rich and delicious with lovely onion flavour from the chive, the dish wouldn’t have suffered without them. This was a fantastic bit of cooking.
We also had a brilliant glass of merlot to go alongside this lamb dish, a necessary and delicious accompaniment.
Course 4: apple, liquorice and tarragon
This was the most challenging dish for us as neither of us enjoy liquorice. At all. It’s quite brave of Chef Luke Holland to put up a dish so strong in such a divisive flavour. Having said that, the plate went back clean as it did the best possible job of changing our minds. Fresh apple granita with strong and chewy black liquorice reminded us of blackjack sweets and still had a surprising freshness despite the nuclear bomb of pure aniseed flavour from the tarragon. Not our favourite dish, but if you like aniseed flavours, you will love it. Granita courses typically cleanse the palate, but the strong liquorice did quite the opposite here as the powerful taste lingered in our mouths until dessert number two arrived.
Course 5: white chocolate, pea, water mint, coconut
Another unique flavour combination here! They just keep coming! Savoury notes on a pud aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. I think some chefs can get carried away with their love of savoury creations and forget that, in the face of good gastronomy, their customers really just want a sweet, unctuous and satisfying dessert to finish a meal. Having said that, we really, really enjoyed this dish – white chocolate and pea are a perfect pairing, who knew?! I enjoyed it more than Stu, with ‘mmmm’s at every creamy spoonful. Underneath the (very savoury!) light pea foam was a scoop of coconut ice cream and a base of pea and white chocolate ganache. For me, the ganache was the triumph in this pud. The rich and sweet white chocolate was balanced with the sweet and grass pea flavour really well – probably better than the pea foam. Slight hints of mint complemented each element, but the coconut in the ice cream was a bit lost – it could have been stronger to stand against the powerful pea and mint chocolate sweetness. Despite a few shavings of toasted coconut, a bit of crunch would have been welcome, too. It was an indulgent yet light finish the meal and you couldn’t accuse this dish of being sickly. Another unique combination that makes this menu stand apart.
So, as you can probably tell, we really loved this menu. It feels like Luke Holland has injected some intrigue and joy de vive into Merchants, although we did like it prior to his exciting arrival too. There were some classic flavours and some that we have never and will never have anywhere else (looking at you, bbq ash beef tartare!) Although a tasting menu is far from an every day indulgence, it would be a fantastic place for a treat and can stand up to our other favourite fine dining tasting menus: The Black Bull and Alchemilla (for a similar if not cheaper price point). Plus, it’s smack bang in the Lace Market next to some fantastic pubs and bars for a special night out. We will absolutely be back to try their set lunch menu at £19 for 3 courses which gives us much more opportunity to try this wonderful food! A special mention has to go to the service at Merchants which is always faultless and attentive while still managing to be relaxed. They have a fantastic friendly and funny team here who really know their stuff.
One question… Why were we the only ones in the restaurant?! Is it the best kept secret ever?! What a Nottingham scandal! Well done to Luke Holland and welcome to Merchant’s, we’re certainly glad to see you.
Emily and Stu
Atmosphere and surrounding: 7/10